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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Why the Government Fails to Maintain Anything

As the mad scramble to pass President Obama’s stimulus bill reminded us, politicians love to start new government programs. They gain things they can brag about during their reelection campaigns. But there’s little to be gained by maintaining programs somebody else started. No surprise, then, that in budget battles, maintenance tends to be under-funded.

Moreover, as power is centralized, those further down the chain of command, who are nominally responsible for maintaining government assets, have less and less authority to do so. Since nobody really owns government assets, nobody has a personal stake in protecting their value. Consider a few cases.

Why Can’t Government Maintain New Orleans’s Levees?

The nearly half-million people of New Orleans wanted to live in their big bowl below sea level, and they entrusted politicians with the job of maintaining more than 125 miles of levees. These large walls, typically made of earth and/or stone, surrounded the city to keep out water from the Mississippi River (to the south and southeast of the city), Lake Borgne (to the east), Lake Pontchartrain (to the north), and various canals. Since water continuously leaked into the city, there were floodwalls, about 200 floodgates, plus pumps and drainage canals for additional protection.

Then Hurricane Katrina hit. It crossed Florida on Thursday, August 25, 2005, as a Category 1 (weakest category) hurricane, then gathered strength as it reached the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Wind velocities accelerated, and by Sunday, August 28, Katrina was a Category 5. It weakened somewhat to a Category 4 when it made landfall east of New Orleans the next day, with winds of up to 145 miles per hour. We all know what happened next.

But why did it happen? There seemed to be problems almost everywhere in New Orleans’s levee system. Dr. Peter Nicholson, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Hawaii, headed a study of the levee failures on behalf of the American Society of Civil Engineers. He reported, “We found literally dozens of breaches throughout the many miles of levee system. A number of different failure mechanisms were observed.” Ivor van Heerden, deputy director of Louisiana State University’s Hurricane Center, criticized the design and suggested that inadequate construction could also be an issue. Forensic teams that studied these levees generally agreed with the assessment.

Who was responsible for the failure of the levees?

They needed maintenance because everything needs maintenance and because each year the city was sinking about an inch deeper into the Mississippi River mud. Although New Orleans politicians’ most important job was public safety and the levees obviously affected public safety, politicians seemed to believe doing maintenance work–which would probably go unseen–wouldn’t serve their personal interests (especially getting reelected).

The state had established the New Orleans District Levee Board in 1890 to be responsible for maintaining the levees around the city. But the board members, a majority of whom are appointed by Louisiana’s governor, pursued their interests by expanding their power, gaining jurisdiction to develop properties around the levees. Board members spent time on such matters as licensing a casino, leasing space to a karate club, and operating an airport and marinas. The Senate Homeland and Governmental Affairs Committee reported, “A review of the levee-district board minutes of recent years revealed that the board and its various committees spent more time discussing its business operations than it did the flood-control system it was responsible for operating and maintaining.”

James P. Huey, who had been on the board for 13 years and served as its president for nine years, blamed the state legislature. He claimed that the board had to generate money from those time-consuming extraneous businesses because the state legislature had cut the board’s revenue in half. So even though members of the board knew that a levee in New Orleans East was three feet below its design height–which would affect its ability to withstand a storm surge and therefore jeopardized the people in the city–they didn’t get it fixed because they were squabbling about who would pay for it. The Army Corps of Engineers refused. The board wrote letters to their members of Congress asking Washington for money, but they were busy with other things. And the Flood Control Act, which Congress passed in 1965, sent a clear signal that the federal government would bail out people who wanted to live in flood-prone areas like New Orleans.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers handled design and construction of the levees, as it handled flood-control projects throughout the United States. But its budget consisted almost entirely of “earmarks,” assuring that appropriations would be spread around congressional districts. That gave incumbents something to brag about during their election campaigns. The problem was that spending a lot more money on New Orleans flood protection wasn’t the top priority for the state’s politicians. J. Bennett Johnston Jr., for example, when he was a Louisiana senator, secured appropriations for four new dams on the Red River between Mississippi and Shreveport, costing $2 billion.

Bottom line: Nobody in the city, state, or federal governments wanted responsibility for maintaining the levees.


Why Can’t Government Maintain Public Housing?

Because poor people tend to live in poor housing, many people thought it would be a good idea for government to build housing. This started during the New Deal and accelerated after World War II as the federal government subsidized municipalities. Public housing projects were given names–like Cochran Gardens, Maplewood Court, Henry Horner Homes, and Rockwell Gardens–that suggested they might be charming.

A guiding principle of the time was that housing projects should be massive. In part this reflected the influence of the Swiss-born architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris–later known as Le Corbusier–who urged during the 1920s that people be concentrated in big buildings consisting of cell-block apartments. The buildings were set pieces, surrounded by empty parks and separated from their neighborhoods. Bigness became a kind of architectural cult, embraced by Soviet mass murderer Joseph Stalin and others during the mid-twentieth century. Like so many Soviet buildings, U.S. housing projects tended to be big and ugly.

Consider the experience of the Chicago Housing Authority, the third-largest public-housing bureaucracy in the United States. It built a four-mile stretch of housing projects. Just one of them, the Robert Taylor Homes, included a couple dozen 16-story buildings containing 4,400 units altogether. It was reportedly the world’s largest housing project.

These monstrosities quickly deteriorated. “The buildings in its enormous family developments are literally crumbling,” reported housing analyst Susan J. Popkin in 2000. “They are relatively old; most construction occurred during the 1950s and early 1960s. The original materials were cheap and have not held up well over time. Further, the buildings are poorly designed, with exterior hallways and elevators that have proven extremely difficult to maintain.” The government couldn’t begin to take care of this development. Popkin went on, giving a litany of problems familiar to many residents of “the projects” across the country:

Because the hallways of the high-rises are covered with metal grates, the buildings look like prisons. Many apartments (and some entire buildings) are boarded up because their major systems–plumbing, heating, electrical–have failed. The grounds and hallways are often filled with refuse and reek of human waste. The buildings are infested with vermin, including rats, mice, roaches, and even feral cats. Lights in interior hallways, elevators, and stairwells are vandalized regularly, leaving these areas dark twenty-four hours a day. The buildings’ exteriors, halls, and stairwells are often covered with graffiti or, in the better-maintained developments, the evidence of the janitors’ attempts to paint over the mess.

Without constant vigilance it is nearly impossible to keep the units clean. In addition to the dirt that blows in from outdoors, it is not uncommon to see apartment walls literally crawling with roaches. Most apartments also have serious maintenance problems, owing to years of neglect and failed structural systems. For example, in some units, it is impossible to turn off the hot water in the bathrooms, so the walls now have severe moisture damage.

Despite spending millions of dollars on law enforcement in the housing projects, neither the federal government nor the city have been able to maintain public safety. Maintenance people were afraid to enter the housing projects, which contributed to their deterioration.

During the 1980s real estate developer Vincent Lane became chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority and ordered police to “sweep” through public housing projects, ejecting people who weren’t legitimate residents. But the American Civil Liberties Union challenged these sweeps, and evidently they were discontinued. Moreover, they were expensive–about $175,000 per building–and Lane became embroiled in conflict-of-interest scandals involving security service contracts. The Chicago Housing Authority had trouble securing enough funding for its operations, and by the 1990s it had ceased making major repairs.

The next short step was to demolish the disastrous housing projects. The last tower came down in 2007. The city of Chicago began building townhouses, some of which were sold to middle-income private buyers, while others were reserved for former tenants in the projects. Applicants were screened in an effort to avoid drug users or those with criminal records. But construction is likely to proceed slowly and accommodate a fraction of the people who had lived in the projects.

Perhaps the most notorious of all housing projects was Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, designed by Minoru Yamasaki, winner of a number of architectural awards and praise in Architectural Forum. Pruitt-Igoe included 33 11-story buildings on 57 acres in DeSoto-Carr, a poor section of the city. There were 2,870 apartments.

The project was finished in 1956. “Only a few years later,” reported Alexander von Hoffman of Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, “disrepair, vandalism, and crime plagued Pruitt-Igoe. The project’s recreational galleries and skip-stop elevators, once heralded as architectural innovations, had become nuisances and danger zones. Large numbers of vacancies indicated that even poor people preferred to live anywhere but Pruitt-Igoe. The St. Louis Housing Authority spent $5 million trying to fix the problems but failed.” In 1972, three of the 16-year-old Pruitt-Igoe buildings were demolished. The following year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development agreed Pruitt-Igoe was hopeless, and the rest of it came down.

Similar public housing projects across the country were just as wretched. Joseph Petrone, a former maintenance supervisor with the Philadelphia Housing Authority, recalled: “I’d go to work at Schuylkill Falls [a PHA project] with a .38-caliber revolver in my belt and a big stick in my hand. The stick was for the German shepherds people kept tied to their doorknobs. The halls were covered with trash because the dogs would tear up the trash bags. We’d find bodies in the elevator shafts; the kids would play there, get stuck, and fall or get crushed.” The government was incapable of maintaining anything it built.

Why Can’t Government Maintain National Parks?

More than a century ago, “Progressives” promoted the idea that only government could be trusted to take care of natural wonders like Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. Things have worked out rather differently. Apparently when politicians began considering the idea of national parks, nobody thought much about maintenance. For example, Congress was assured Yellowstone wouldn’t cost Washington anything once the initial roads and buildings were constructed. In 1916 Stephen Mather, who managed the national parks, reported, “The revenues of several parks might be sufficient to cover the costs of their administration and protection and Congress should only be requested to appropriate funds for their improvement.”

Over the years, presidents have bragged about how much they added to the National Park Service. Now it includes some 6,000 historic structures, 8,500 monuments, 2,000 bridges and tunnels, 4,300 employee housing units, and 27,000 campground sites, as well as docks, parking areas, and other assets. But it wasn’t until 2002 that the National Park Service began to assess their condition.

Since the federal government “owns” the national parks, their funding depends on Washington politics. The prevailing policy has been that most revenue generated in the parks goes to Washington. As a consequence, the parks have had to lobby politicians for appropriations. But over the years the biggest increases in federal spending have involved wars and social programs. The National Park Service has had a hard time competing for funds with the likes of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. It’s a small pig at the trough. There has been a big backlog of deferred National Park Service maintenance jobs that lacked funding. Roads are sometimes hazardous because of potholes. Visitor facilities are falling apart. Historic structures are in jeopardy. Sewage systems have broken, causing pollution.

Why Should Government Start Something It Can’t Maintain?

Government cannot be counted on to maintain anything well because there’s no political glory in maintenance. Those who sign major laws, who launch new government programs, and who cut the ribbons for new government buildings can brag about their exploits during reelection campaigns. But politicians don’t seem to gain any credit with voters when they maintain programs that somebody else started. In many cases, like adding more cement to New Orleans levees, maintenance work is invisible.

Since taxpayer money is wasted when it’s spent on projects that subsequently suffer from inadequate maintenance, and often much harm is done, government should be limited to projects it might be able to maintain. If this means government ends up doing little, so be it.

  • Jim Powell, senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is an expert in the history of liberty. He has lectured in England, Germany, Japan, Argentina and Brazil as well as at Harvard, Stanford and other universities across the United States. He has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Esquire, Audacity/American Heritage and other publications, and is author of six books.